As the coronavirus pandemic forces researchers to put lab work on hold, some animal test subjects could be euthanized.
At Johns Hopkins University, for example, scientists were recently instructed to designate animals in their labs as “mission essential” and said others “may be euthanized if space/resources l ‘demand’.
So far, that hasn’t been necessary, said Eric Hutchinson, director of research animal resources at Hopkins. Some mice were euthanized because they lacked a gene studied in an experiment, he said. If more research was being done, these mice could have been used in another lab, he said.
Hopkins Medicine officials said veterinarians and other staff are working to ensure animals “stay healthy and well cared for” as some lab experiments are halted.
But animal rights advocates argue that such rulings show that animal testing isn’t always life-saving.
“The big question is why are these animals that – when the experiments were approved by the school’s watchdog were deemed so imperative to human health – now so easily discarded?” said PETA Vice President of Laboratory Investigations Alka Chandna.
In research institutes across the country, on-campus research activities are restricted to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. While students are taking distance learning courses for the remainder of the academic year, students, faculty, and postdoctoral researchers focused on lab experiments are encouraged to stay home and analyze data or write papers. and grant proposals.
It is not known how many animals can be or have been euthanized. The most recent federal animal research data available across the country shows that in fiscal year 2018, researchers used more than 780,000 animals as test subjects. This total includes primates, hamsters, guinea pigs, cats, dogs, pigs, rabbits and sheep, but not rats or mice, which are most commonly used.
In Maryland, researchers used 32,418 animals that year, tenth among the states.
At the University of Maryland, Baltimore, all but “a tiny portion” of research has been suspended since Monday, spokesman Alex Likowski said. And he said he wasn’t aware of any euthanized animals.
University officials asked research teams to identify at least two people to monitor the animals “and ensure their welfare should additional restrictions become necessary.”
Hopkins Medicine officials said they are asking researchers designated as essential personnel in their laboratories to ensure the health and welfare of laboratory animals, as well as to continue projects, preserve data and protect the ‘equipment.
“We have a lot of staff, including veterinarians and other staff who are trained to care for our lab animals throughout this time,” they said in a statement.
As research managers consider which experiments can go forward, an important factor is whether putting a project on hold “would be a waste of animal lives or resources,” Hutchinson said. He added that, so far, he does not expect any animals to be euthanized due to a lack of space or resources.
Mice are the exception, he says. Scientists modify the genomes of mice and breed them to produce more mice with the same characteristics. Inevitably, some mice are born without the desired genotype for that particular experiment and therefore cannot be used in the project.
Typically, efforts would be made to find other researchers who could use the mice, but with the “vast majority” of animal research on hold, that’s not possible, Hutchinson said. The mice are euthanized with carbon dioxide, which puts them to sleep and eventually suffocates them.
Otherwise, researchers are urged to delay all orders for new animal test subjects except for experiments focused on COVID-19, the infection caused by the novel coronavirus.
Researchers say animal testing is essential in biomedical research as a way to learn more about human biology. Stanford Medicine researchers say mice and humans share 98% of their DNA, and because laboratory animals have shorter life cycles than humans, they can be observed throughout their lives and across the generations.
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Federal regulators also require new drugs to be tested on animals before they are approved for human use. Other test methods are under study.
As the pandemic continues, the highest priority for medical researchers is any vaccine or treatment to fight the novel coronavirus.
Hutchinson suggested the pathogen is a prime example of the potential value of animal research. Genetically modified mice could help scientists understand the way the coronavirus attacks the body, then use that information to develop a treatment or a vaccine.
Animals are typically used in vaccine trials to ensure there are no toxic side effects – and also because, to prove a vaccine works, subjects must be “challenged » from being exposed to any pathogen against which they were created to provide protection.
But, given the urgency of the coronavirus pandemic, a clinical trial for an experimental COVID-19 vaccine is continuing at the National Institutes of Health without the typical animal testing phase.
PETA’s Chandna suggested this makes questions about the value of animal testing “even more valid and crucial”.
Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.